OAKLAND — The fire that devoured at least 1,000 structures in the hillsides of Berkeley and Oakland was fueled by a nightmarish recipe of weather, wild land, poor maintenance and bad luck that no number of firefighters could have overcome.
For starters, there was the freakish climate: temperatures as high as 90 degrees, humidity as low as 8% and Santa Ana-like winds as strong as 35 m.p.h.--the kind of day that Southlanders ruefully await in October but Northern Californians hardly ever see.
Then there was the vulnerability of the homes in the pricey, heavily wooded neighborhoods. They were an eclectic mix of classic, turn-of-the-century estates and smaller residences that had been built a half-century ago as summer places for sun-seeking San Franciscans. Many were topped with wood shingles. Most were surrounded by large parcels of drought-parched brush and trees. In a region that had not suffered from a major fire for 21 years, relatively few property owners seemed to pay much attention to brush-clearing ordinances.
Then, as fire spread and panic set in, there was the power outage. Two hours after the fire began, its flames disabled many key electrical transmission lines. The lack of power crippled the pumping system that was supposed to keep reservoirs and fire hydrants filled. Firefighters were, in some cases, forced to stand by their trucks and watch tragedy descend.
Even the eucalyptus trees that festoon the hills conspired. Eucalyptus, for all their leafy calmness, are not indigenous to North America and are extremely susceptible to drought. Dry or dead, they explode when fire strikes. They, along with pine trees, sent torches of flame soaring from tree to tree and from house to house.
"The conditions were right for disaster," Berkeley Fire Chief Gary Cates said Monday.
It was, state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Karen Terrill said, "the fire of the future for California"--a grim reminder of the consequences of building residential neighborhoods in brushy hillsides, an ever-popular industry and lifestyle.
The fire came when many firefighters were being placed on standard seasonal layoff, and as state budget cuts were depleting some resources that could have been used to fight the East Bay fire and two others that broke out Sunday in Sonoma County and Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County.
Fire officials insisted that the manpower and equipment issues were academic--the same point they made last year after a huge fire destroyed at least 425 single-family homes in a similar setting in Santa Barbara.
"As long as that many houses and that many trees are crammed into an area that tightly, (having more) air tankers is not the point," Terrill said. "All the air tankers in the world could have not stopped this fire. This was a wild land fire. The houses became the fuel. This was an extraordinary natural phenomenon and it resulted in a tragedy."
The blaze was triggered when a "hot spot" in a 12-acre fire that had been extinguished Saturday suddenly flared out of control on Sunday, even as three crews of firemen were monitoring it. The cause of Saturday's fire remained unknown Monday. What was clear was that the winds quickly pushed the blaze through the hills in Oakland into Berkeley.
The fire grew from a one-alarm blaze to a four-alarm fire in its first hour.
"The fire just got away," said Oakland Fire Chief Lamont Ewell, who took over as chief several weeks ago after leaving a job as an assistant fire chief in Maryland. "We're at the mercy of (Santa Ana-like) winds."
Whether firefighters would have had a chance to control the blaze became moot when four of Pacific Gas and Electric's eight main East Bay power lines were put out of commission by the fire. That cut off power to the East Bay Municipal Utilities District's 17 water pumping plants that send water to hillside reservoirs, which in turn send water back downhill to a system of fire hydrants.
Seven reservoirs with about 4 million gallons of water quickly ran out of water. Radical fluctuations in pressure mixed with the heat of the fire snapped water lines.
"We just didn't have any pumping capacity," said Gayle Montgomery of the utilities district. "It was a firestorm."
Alameda County Supervisor Warren Widener said he watched his house burn.
"People were just watching. The fires started jumping from house to house. Firefighters were there with their equipment but there was no water," Widener said. "No one wants to sit and watch their house burn down. That's the frustrating feeling. . . . If there had been water, I believe the truck could have saved the houses. Those houses burned because there wasn't any water."
The wind tore off chunks of burning roofs and sent them flying onto other houses.